It’s hard to pick a 2022 NTT IndyCar Series star over the first nine rounds due to the closeness of the competition. Whoever sets the pace in the previous round can so easily become a participant in the next one. For that reason, Josef Newgarden must be congratulated for piling up wins on the oval, street circuit (when the Penske-Chevrolet team was probably only the third best car-engine combination) and road course.
But even though the cameras didn’t catch him that often, it’s important to note the efforts of rookie Christian Lundgaard. Certainly, because of their Road To Indy history, Kyle Kirkwood and David Malukas grabbed the rookie headlines, either outdoing their equipment or outdoing their results, depending on the down days and up days of their respective teams, AJ Foyt Racing and Dale Coyne Racing. But both are led in the championship by Lanigan-Honda’s quiet Dane Rahal Letterman, who, unlike them, has little to no track experience on the NTT IndyCar Series schedule.
Photo: Michael L. Levitt / Images of motor sports
If you look at the most obvious stats – best finish ninth, best qualifying position eighth – you might question the wisdom of giving him the nod. Those numbers are comparable to Malukas and Kirkwood, but certainly to be expected from a man who has won races in Formula 2, Formula 3 and Formula Renault. Actually, isn’t that a little disappointing for a guy who entered IndyCar on a one-time deal with RLL at last August’s Indianapolis Motor Speedway and qualified fourth, barely a blink slower than the pole position?
Yes, outwardly this is true, but do not put this comparative decline on the driver; Lundgaard finds himself in a more difficult situation now that he has become a full-time employee in 2022. The team, owned by Bobby Rahal, David Letterman and Mike Lanigan, is currently in dire straits, with a weekend where the rookie and his experienced teammates Graham Rahal and Jack Harvey combined barely registered. That’s why 17 are sittingthousand15thousand and 20thousand respectively in the table of points.
It’s not like anyone in RLL isn’t working as hard as their counterparts on competing teams, and no one there is happy with how things are going. But professional sport is fiercely judged, and while Bobby and Graham and their hawking sponsors can charm birds out of the trees and care for their support like few others, viewers will draw conclusions based solely on speed and results.
As a race engineer from a competing team remarked to me a few weeks ago, “Why would a team that finished 7thousand to 10thousand in the championship every year, with an engineering team better than anyone but Ganassi and Penske, do you think expanding to three cars will be the magic bullet?”
Photo: Gavin Baker / Images of motor sports
Well, the theory is that having more cars on track in any session on race weekends will at least start to make up for the lack of test days…
“It doesn’t work that way,” snapped the reply. “It only works for fine-tuning. You don’t have the time – or the tires – to run three very different setups and then make changes depending on which of your cars is fast. Hell, I wish we did. It’s all about work between races, and if you don’t get off the truck quickly or make just a few small adjustments, you’re going to be sluggish the rest of the weekend…”
Unless you’re Ganassi.
“Okay, yes, unless you’re Ganassi.”
But that’s the way it is: RLL has expanded to three full-time IndyCar companies at a time when qualified personnel have become difficult to find, while at the same time it’s building a new facility and preparing to run the exciting BMW GTP car in IMSA. But while some may find this too ambitious, that shouldn’t detract from RLL’s choice of a third driver. That certainly hasn’t diminished the appeal of IndyCar for Lundgaard: in fact, the F2 refugee sounds extremely positive.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” he tells Motorsport.com. “As a driver, you always want to win, but the task of raising the team further is interesting. I love the challenge of bringing together the staff we have and those who will be joining us, getting them all to work well together and increase productivity. This challenge is good.
“I would agree with Graham that we may be understaffed. But no matter how you turn it, it’s always nice to have extra people, right? From a pitcrew perspective, for example, I’m not personally complaining. This season I have a lot of new guys in the car, some experienced, improving their mistakes and also improving each other’s mistakes. I think it went really well this year. Having Ryan Harber [former MLB pitcher who is now RLL’s director of human performance] with us to help the pitcrew be better physically prepared, definitely positive.
RLL-Honda teammates Jack Harvey, Christian Lundgaard and Graham Rahal.
Photo: Jeffrey M. Miller / Images of motor sports
“The important thing is that things are going in the right direction and not in the wrong direction, so I have no complaints.”
Despite being a rookie, it’s worth noting that Lundgaard has outscored both of his teammates in the last four road and street events — Grand Prix Indy, Detroit, Road America and Mid-Ohio — and he’s yet to finish third. RLL trio place on any type of track. He also, aside from contact with the wall at Texas Motor Speedway after the incident with Colton Hertha, minimized his significant mistakes, which is one of the main reasons why he is ahead of Malukus and Kirkwood in the rookie standings. It’s as if 10 races into his IndyCar career, Lundgaard has already developed an innate sense of the car’s limits.
“I don’t think there’s any benefit to going over the limit,” he says bluntly. “Of course, paying for damages is never fun. I’ve never had much of a history of damaging cars, so I must be thinking it’s something I brought over from Europe.
“But also… we’re not really in a position to risk throwing everything overboard to get one extra position. Results come from consistency, intelligence and the long game. Making sure we finish the race, get the points, get the mileage and get the data will help us understand what changes we want to make and what directions we want to go in. In the whole team, that was the biggest advantage for us – to be informed every time, to get data.”
Evaluating his year as a whole, Lundgaard again emphasizes the positive, likes the closed nature of the competition.
“Performance-wise, we’ve been disappointed,” he says, “but as hard as it is … well, I think Mid-Ohio is a good example. As I told my race engineer after the race, “If you want to play with big guys you have to play I like it big guys.” Simon [Pagenaud of Meyer Shank Racing] and I had a little tangled up together, but nothing too serious. We just stuck our elbows out – and that’s what IndyCar is: tough racing, but fair racing. There’s a respect between the riders and I like that: there’s no one who just knocks each other off the track and then complains about it. That’s racing, that’s what it is, and that’s what I love most about IndyCar. How tough, tough, but fair racing is.
“We had races where we struggled more than others. I don’t think we’ve had that one clean weekend where we’ve got everything going, so I’m looking forward to it!”
The ovals haven’t filled him with enthusiasm yet, but he can tell it will be fun eventually.
“I wouldn’t say I enjoyed oval racing,” he admits with a laugh, “but now that I’ve got the experience, it’s a cool experience, right? So, when I go back to oval racing next year, I will have that benefit. When we were testing in Iowa a couple of weeks ago, I went out there and said, “Damn, this is not fun!” The track is so bumpy and you’re going in circles and when you’re on it for the first time you’re like, ‘Is this right?’ Is that good?” You have no frame of reference, so that was my biggest advantage in having Graham and Jack. Make them go out and prove what is possible in the car. It pushes me to improve harder. So as a driver package I think we’re well sorted.”
Last month’s first taste of Iowa Speedway opened Lundgaard’s eyes.
Photo: IndyCar Series
On road and street courses, the 20-year-old Dane is better at finding his own way – by combining data with his colleagues, of course – and is getting used to the dynamics of IndyCar after two seasons in F2.
“I would say some weekends are better than others,” he admits. “For example, at Mid-Ohio, we struggled with one problem right from the first lap we had on the weekend, but you adapt and you understand, so it gets better and it filters a little bit more. These cars take a lot more oversteer than I’m used to. The car is no different from the F2 car – which makes sense because they are both built by Dallara and I know some components are the same. So… it’s not too difficult to adapt.”
Whatever his problem was at Mid-Ohio — and he clearly didn’t want to go into specifics — Lundgaard posted the fourth-fastest time during the race. But he remains realistic about the remaining seven rounds on the 2022 schedule and dismisses his stunning IndyCar debut last August as history.
“Honestly, I don’t think too much about that performance last year because it was more of a confirmation for myself that I still have it. I had a very difficult season in Europe. We were off the pace, lacked performance pretty much everywhere we went, and if you made changes to the car you would feel it, but it would react too much to what you were doing. It was very difficult to find the balance of getting it right where I feel more comfortable and competitive in understanding the car. So that IndyCar race last year just confirmed, “Okay, I can still drive, I can still be fast,” etc. So I think that’s why I like being here more than last year in Formula 2, because everywhere we went last year I was like, “Ugh, here we go again, what’s this event going to bring?” Here, I go in and no matter how strong our car is, I feel like I can win. It changes your perspective as a rider.”
That being the case, it’s not surprising to hear Lundgaard sounding much more positive about staying on this side of the Atlantic for the foreseeable future, as well as sticking with the RLL.
He says: “I like the project the team is building with the new facility and expanding to three cars for this season – for the whole season. I think next year we will have more confidence, we will move from this shop to the new one and it will be calmer in the sense that “this is where we will be” and the whole team is working on it. Everyone is very committed and I’m definitely looking forward to it.”
Is the European era of Lundgaard over? No callbacks expected from Alpine?
“I’d be as surprised as you are!” he laughs, before admitting that a one-off meeting with the French team at Le Mans would interest him if IndyCar’s schedule doesn’t rule out the June 10-11 event.
After the interview is over, I wonder when was the last time I heard from a 17-year-old driverthousand in mid-season points sounds so positive. In Lundgaard’s case, it’s because he’s excited about the future. But that should not overshadow the good work he is doing here and now, under difficult circumstances. It can only be properly recognized if he maintains his No. 1 spot in the rookie standings until the season finale in mid-September.